Marathon PR: Mountains2Beach in Ojai

A few weeks ago, I ran a fast marathon in Ojai. It was so fast, in fact, that it was my fastest ever marathon – by over two minutes! I ran 3:23:27.

After PRing my 50k a few months ago, I felt like maybe I was in good enough shape to try for a marathon PR. So I hunted around for a fast course and signed up for this one – Mountains2Beach – which is one of the fastest courses out there. It’s net downhill, which is fantastic, and the weather is typically quite temperate, which is also good for running at speed.

Here are some observations from the day.

Start

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

The start of wave 3. I’m in the front on the left side of the photo.

The start setup was three waves. The first wave was for runners who thought they would finish under 3:20. The second wave was for those between 3:20 and 3:40 (which is where I was supposed to start, with a 3:35 target time/ Boston qualifying time), and the third wave was for 3:40+ finishers. Waves started two minutes apart. The 3:35 pace group started in wave 2, which is where I was seeded to start as well.

I decided to start with wave 3; from previous experience, I knew that it was easier for me to catch up to other runners than to try to stay with a particular pace group. So, I gave the 3:35 group a 2 minute head start, then spent the first 8-9 miles catching them.

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 6

When I caught up to them, I ran with them for a little bit. But on one of the downhills, my legs were feeling good, so I let loose and kept going, leaving them behind.

 

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 9

Middle

For a while, I could actually see the 3:30 pace group, and I briefly entertained the idea of trying to catch them. Until about mile 16, it seemed possible, but my legs started slowing down. I ate a Gu and pushed through to mile 17, which psychologically was a good mile marker, as Patti had met me at 17 at Nashville a few weeks prior. So I was looking forward to that (to clarify – she wasn’t there, but I imagined she was because she’s the best cheerleader. Runners have weird minds.)

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 16

Finish

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 18.5. In the zone.

 

The thing about pace groups is that you know where they are even when you don’t see them. When a huge group of runners is jamming together, and one is holding a sign that says “3:35,” it’s pretty obvious to spectators what’s going on.

Around mile 21, I started hearing the crowds on the side of the road cheering for the 3:35 pace group. Which meant they were catching up. Which meant I was slowing down. And if they passed me I knew it was going to be really hard to stay with them (see “Beginning”).

One of the things I learned from Ingrid at Lake Chabot was that I could hurt when running, and things wouldn’t necessarily break. So at this point I really put on the gas. I was being chased, and I didn’t want to be caught, and running was going to hurt for a while.

The last two miles were pretty brutal. The course flattened out (no more downhill) which was a shock for the legs. The crowds cheering for the 3:35 group got louder. But I was running faster too.

At the finish chute, I gave my legs a 50/50 chance of giving out – my quads were jelly, and I wasn’t sure if my next step would land without me collapsing.

The pace group was RIGHT behind me. The sun was behind us, and I saw the shadow of the pace group sign on the ground next to me. It was RIGHT THERE.

I blasted through the finish just ahead of the 3:35 pace group, securing my PR.

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

This is the finish line. I am literally RIGHT in front of the pace group

After

Observations:

  • I’ve said for several years that distance runners hit their peaks in their 30s. As someone who turned 30 this year, I’m very pleased with the results so far. There were a lot of things about this race that would have thrown a younger me off, but having had the reps really helped me work through the tough parts.
  • It’s weird to have to learn to say a new PR time. Sometimes the old one still pops out!
  • I’m not sure I’ll actually make it to Boston, which is disappointing – just because a runner gets to register with a qualifying time under the guidance time, doesn’t mean they’ll be selected. The fastest runners get to go, and last year the cutoff time was over three minutes lower than the registration time. So we’ll see. But that doesn’t take anything away from this insane accomplishment.

 

Runners who qualify for Boston get to ring this super sweet gong

 

Finisher!

 

The stats

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Nashville Rock’n’Roll Marathon

Ran a race a few weeks ago in Nashville. Highlights:

  • Getting to hang out with Antarctican buddies (Andrew and Patti continue to be my inspirations)
  • Exploring Nashville the music scene – it’s legit!
  • Running a pretty fast race for the hilly / hot course: 3:54 (not my fastest marathon, but came in top 8% for women and felt pretty good at the end!)

Here are some photos. Patti took most of them (thanks Patti!)

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Runners “RunningSucks” and “Rainbow Goat’ pick up their bibs

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Pre-race at a bar on Nashville’s Broadway that has been repurposed as a banana, bagel, and water dispensary

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Running a race. Notice Patti’s cowbell in the foreground 

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Finishing a race!

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They gave us medals

 

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Best Cheerleader Ever takes a selfie

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Temp tattoo time

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Sun never sets on a badass.

 

 

Lake Chabot 50k – new PR!

The start of the race -feeling good

A few weeks ago I ran a race at Lake Chabot (thanks again Inside Trail!). I’ve run in this area a few times before – once in 2016, and once in 2012.

If you check out the results page … I came in 3rd! But even better … I set a personal record for the 50k distance!!! This 50k is the fastest one I’ve ever run in my life, and the fastest since 2012 … which is crazy, and also pretty exciting because:

  • This is the last race of my 20s (turning 30 this weekend)
  • I’m getting faster even as I’m getting older
  • I could maybe run even faster in the future!

Here’s how it went down –

The day dawned crisp and clear – as is usual for the East Bay of California. I’d signed up for the race just a few days earlier, on Wednesday of that week, because it felt like a good time to run a race (sometimes your body just tells you).

The course is an 18 mile loop followed by a 13 mile loop. The 13 mile is a shortened version of the previous loop, so there would be some sections of the course, including a substantial out-and-back, that we’d see four times. I typically do well in races with longer out-and-backs, because I can see the field of runners, and also know what sort of terrain is coming on the way back.

At some point just before the start, I realized that I’d forgotten my GPS watch.  This was a little disconcerting, but there wasn’t much to do for it at this point. I’d also recently read an article that sometimes anchoring consistently on pace or time can actually slow runners down, so I tried to focus on that.

The first loop was pretty uneventful. I spent a lot of time worrying about the runners in the 18-mile race, who would sprint past us at what seemed like breakneck speed. However, I also knew there were plenty of 50k runners ahead of me and I wasn’t really competitive, so at some point, I just settled in. The first big climb was several miles, and I’m pretty slow on the uphills anyway, so a lot of other runners drifted by me.

Around mile 7 or 8 the course has a pretty long downhill, and that’s where I felt the energy kick in. I flew down the hill, passing a lot of folks who had previously been ahead of me. I was in a pretty fantastic mood too – the scenery was gorgeous, with rolling green hills lush from rain and beautiful blue sky.

After an aid station, maybe around mile 11-12, I caught up temporarily with another runner. She was a badass – training for a 100-mile race – and somehow was just cruising up these hills. She basically had one running speed, and it was inexorable. At some point (maybe after about a mile) I had to let her go – I couldn’t keep up with her hills.

However, I still knew I was running pretty quickly and I felt pretty good. There was one point during this race where I felt so much energy, happiness, and excitement – like my heart would just burst with it – I’ve never felt that while running before. It wasn’t runners high (I’m honestly not sure what that is, but this wasn’t it) – but it was so much energy that I just didn’t know what to do with it. So I did the only thing that made sense – translate it into speed.

Another hill crest, then heading down to the end of the first lap. Miles 16-18, as we headed into the turnaround, were very flat, along the lake. This is where I knew I’d see other runners on the return, and I could figure out how far ahead of me they would be.

I saw the woman in first place about 3-4 miles ahead of me, and that was pretty disheartening. There was no way in this universe I could ever catch her – she was probably 30 minutes ahead of me. The next woman, in 2nd place, was maybe about a 1.5-2 miles ahead of me, and at that point I was pretty sure there was no way I’d place in this race.

However, for the next mile or so I didn’t see anyone – and then I saw the turnaround aid station up ahead! There were two runners just coming out of it – one was a younger woman running in 3rd, and the other was the woman I’d been running with earlier, running in 4th!

I quickly refueled and caught up to the 4th place runner – I learned her name was Ingrid. We passed the runner in 3rd place, and I started thinking about the next half-marathon of running.

Ingrid kept trying to tell me that this was “just a training run” for her so she wasn’t trying to push it, but she was a literal speed demon. She was blasting up hills and powering down the other side, and she was taking no prisoners at aid stations.  As I struggled to keep up with her, we headed into our first hill together, I was sure I’d fall back, because she was still running these hills (vs speed-walking, which is my normal approach). I settled for a run/walk combination, which translated into me running the hill as long as I could to keep up with her, then walking with long strides to not fall behind, then feeling like I was falling behind, then trying to sprint up the hill to catch her, then repeating this process.

There’s something very cool about knowing how far you can push your body, and even though I was moving up these hills faster than was strictly comfortable, I could tell I wasn’t overdoing it. I was uncomfortable, but still within the range that of not exhausting myself. So I kept following Ingrid up these insane hills.

At one point, I was sort of curious about our pace / projected finish time. I almost asked Ingrid to tell me, but then told her not to share it. I didn’t want to influence or jinx the next few miles.

Anyway, Ingrid and I stayed together for the whole second loop of the race. The last few miles we ran side by side the whole way, and we really picked it up towards the finish, flying the last flat two miles.

When I saw the finish line, the first thing I saw was the timer. We crossed the finish line at 5:19 – a full 8 minutes faster than my previous PR.

Just crossing the finish line

Ingrid and crossed the finish line together. It was really motivating to have been able to run with such a fun running buddy for the last loop. I’m 99% sure the reason for my PR was due to time made up on the hills, and that was completely due to Ingrid’s pace.

Ingrid and I sharing a trophy

Anyway, Ingrid and I exchanged phone numbers, and we’re going to do a long run together next weekend.

The trophy pre-slicing

Also, while I believe she and I tied for 3rd place, the timer indicated I finished one second ahead of her. So I had a friend cut the trophy in half (thanks Vlad!) and I sent her half of it – so now we both have half of a 3rd place trophy.

This was a great last race to run in my 20s. Looking forward to another decade of running.

 

Half a trophy

New Year’s One Day: Fresh Start Effect

Not bad, GG bridge. You’re looking good today.

I’ve attempted the New Year One day a few times: once in 2015 and once in 2014. In this race, which takes place on December 31st, you run around in a circle for as many miles as you can in a certain period of time. The previous two times I’ve attempted it, I took on the 24-hour version. Turns out, I’m not great at running around in circles for 24 hours, because it is boring and it gets cold.

Me running this race a few years ago

These last few months have been fairly tumultuous from a personal perspective. I’ve gotten promoted, gotten married, gotten divorced, and finished an Ironman. So, as the new year came around, I was really looking forward to a fresh start. I wanted to do some running, but maybe not 24 hours of running. I signed up for the six hour version of this race about two days before the race.

This was some of the best running I’ve ever done, and not because of any particularly fast running that I did during the race. I was happy – super happy – for pretty much the entire race.

There are a few races that are great not because they are particularly hard or easy, but because you’re in a positive state of mind when running them. For six hours, during this race, I was the most content I’d been in a long time, for all the reasons that make running great. I was running for myself, propelled by myself, relying on the skills and capabilities I had built. I got to catch up with some old friends I’d met in previous races. I got to push myself just a little outside my comfort zone. I got to see some pretty scenery. And there was nothing that could stop me. It was me and this perfect little mile of 60% asphalt and 40% dirt, with iconic views of the Golden Gate Bridge every 10 minutes. I was paying homage to my city, my running, 2017, 2018, and my own strength.

All in all, this was an extremely uneventful race. I ran fast, consistently, and happily for six hours. I ran in the opposite direction for a little bit, then ran the original way again. Then at the end, I stopped running. And I felt good the whole time. And because of that, it’s one of the races I’ll keep close to my heart for a years to come.

The new year is a turning point, and even though it’s a made-up milestone in the scheme of civilization, sometimes that’s okay. For me, this race was a return to my roots.

Bring it on, 2018.

San Francisco delivers.

 

I am $25.00 fast

 

Ironman CDA

Tl;dr: a few weeks ago, I completed my first Ironman. A lot of things have happened since then which has left not a lot of time for reflection, but plenty of time for recovery. I am so proud of this accomplishment, of learning new skills and completing the arduous training. And I couldn’t have done it without support of friends and family. You guys rock.

These guys are the best

Last year, I ran two 100mile races. The training was brutal and tedious, and at the end of the second one, I was not just physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally exhausted as well. I was tired of running and wanted to find something different – so I signed up for an Ironman.

Background

Ironman Couer D’Alene (still a challenge to spell) takes place in Idaho, in the northern part of the state. The closest airport is about thirty minutes west – Spokane. The area is beautiful. The lake is flat and surrounded by mountains, with a few little stretches of beach along the water. Forest everywhere. It feels like a beach town – happy locals, cute shops, great views, excellent places to eat – except nestled in the Rockies and trying to edge its way into Canada.

Bike course. You do this twice.

For those who don’t know, as I didn’t: an Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile (marathon-length) run. The most difficult part of this particular Ironman course is the bike portion. The 112-mile route is a 66-mile out and back, which you do twice, with something like 5,000 feet of climbing. In a run, this wouldn’t be so bad, but for a bike route, this is a lot of vertical. Of all the parts of the course, I thought this would be the most challenging. The Ironman organization also takes no prisoners when it comes to cutoff times – unlike trail races. In an Ironman, if you are three seconds past the cutoff time, they pull you from the course. I was very nervous that this would be me – if I didn’t finish, it was because I wasn’t fast enough on the bike.

This year – 2017 – was also a special year for this race – it was the last time that Couer D’Alene would host an Ironman. I’m not sure why they decided to discontinue this distance, but it’s been replaced by a half-Ironman a little earlier in the year. So, if it didn’t go well, there wouldn’t be a chance to come back and try this particular race again.

Training

My first triathlon was an Olympic-distance race a few years ago, for which I did absolutely no training and had a fantastic time. I was the only person without a wetsuit, and the guys with $10,000 bikes gave me side-eye for not having bike shoes that clipped into my bike. I knew that this approach – just winging it – wouldn’t work quite so well for an Ironman-distance.

As I started on my training journey, I quickly realized that there were a lot of excuses to spend money on this sport. Buy a wetsuit, buy a fancy bike, buy a fancy helmet, buy three GPS watches, buy a training plan, buy a coach, etc. I kept it to a minimum, although there were a few things I needed (wetsuit being one of them). Training plan, I decided, would not be one of them.

To figure out what I wanted to do for training, I did some Googling and inductive reasoning. Unlike running, which measures training in miles-per-week, I learned that triathletes typically measure their training in hours-per-week. So, it seemed it would make sense to distribute my hours-per-week across the three sports in roughly the same ratio as they would be in the final race, which is about 1:4:2 (swim:bike:run hours).

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to become a better swimmer. Despite growing up by the water, my swimming capability hasn’t been particularly impressive – I could move around, but not quickly or gracefully or with any particular speed. I wanted to use this opportunity to really learn how to swim. At the beginning, I wanted to over-index on the swim hours-per-week in order to really build this skill up.

I shopped around a bit for a good pool. What I was really looking for was something that fit with my work travel schedule. I found one at the YMCA nearby that worked well. The first few sessions I attended were pretty funny. The coach – an admirably patient guy named Mohammad – had a biting sense of humor that was perfect. The first day, when I got out of the pool, he said “You are really strong, but you can’t swim in a straight line.” Ouch. The next week he moved me into the slow lane and reconstructed my stroke from zero, teaching me the very basic building blocks. A few weeks after that, he gave me a few sprint drills to try, and at the end of that class, said “Let’s hold off on those for a while – when you speed up, you look like you are drowning.” So, I had a long way to go. However, with his help, and Amy’s over the summer, and lots of hours in the pool, I slowly built up a non-terrible stroke. My time in the YMCA pool with these guys became something I looked forward to every week. I’ve never gotten out of the pool and been anything except for happy.

Mike W, a family friend who has done this race several times, repeatedly warned me that the bike was the hardest part of this race, going as far as to recommend that I choose a different one as my first Ironman. This made me sit up a little straighter and think hard about my bike strategy. He recommended two things: 1) spend some time on indoor bikes, especially cycle classes, and 2) do a lot of hill training.

The indoor cycle classes were easy to find at my gyms. Typically, I’d spend two hours on the bike in the morning, twice a week – the first hour doing intervals by myself, and the second hour in a class. These were some rough mornings.

On weekends, I would take my bike out for longer rides, starting with about a 50-mile distance. Initially, these were terrifying rides. Here’s a not-exhaustive list of things I was afraid of happening to me while on my bike:

  • Getting hit by a car
  • Crashing with another cyclist
  • Hitting a pothole and falling off my bike
  • Going down a hill too quickly and falling off my bike
  • Going around a corner too quickly and falling off my bike
  • Stopping at a stop sign, not unclipping my shoes fast enough, and falling off my bike
  • Crossing train tracks at the wrong angle and getting my tire stuck in the tracks
  • Getting stopped by the police for breaking a rule I wasn’t aware I was breaking
  • Getting a flat tire and not knowing how to fix it
  • Getting lost
  • Being silently judged by other cyclists for my poor form / not expensive bike / slow pace / something else that I was too new to know about
  • Getting in the way of those same cyclists for not understanding the rules of the road

Needless to say, my anxiety levels during the first few rides were through the roof.

To tackle the hills, I picked a hard route for training. For some long rides, I’d cycle down from San Francisco to San Jose, taking the Skyline Boulevard route to get there. About 70 miles in length, it has about 5,200 feet of climbing – brutal any time, but especially in the summer. Also very good training.

After lots of miles on the bike for training, I can say I’m a lot more comfortable “in the saddle”. I haven’t fallen off my training bike (I did fall off my commuter beach cruiser a few weeks ago in a train track, which was embarrassing). Despite my improved capabilities in this sport, cycling still seems like an insanely risky activity. Unlike running, where I’ve always been able to zone out, I’ve never quite achieved that zen-calmness on a bike – there’s always a lurking fear in the back of my mind that something awful will happen, and I’ll go from fit to paralyzed in seconds. I know that’s unlikely, but I still can’t shake it.

Going into the race, I was still most anxious about the bike portion. Unlike trail runs, where the cutoff times are more like suggestions, if you’re even a few seconds late to an Ironman cutoff, they yank you. Given how hilly this course was and how weak my biking was, I was really not sure I’d make the cutoff for the bike. So I trained really hard for the bike section.

I spent the least amount of mind-share and time preparing for the run. My theory was that I knew how to run while exhausted – I’ve done that a lot – and my years of running training would carry me through this part of the race. I still did a lot of miles, but not in any structured way. Running was a filler between the other sports – something to do to relax and get me back to a place where I was comfortable.

Heading to Idaho

The lake where we do our swim (photo credit: Patti)

One of the coolest aspects of an Ironman, yet one of the least convenient, is the fact that, while an Ironman is technically a day-long event, the actual schedule of activities around it spans almost a week. Some of these things are optional, but several of them are mandatory.While the race wasn’t actually until Sunday, check in started on Thursday, with the last opportunity to check in on Friday evening (as I learned from a fellow competitor on Friday afternoon – thanks Pat M). So it’s a real event.

Vavilovians at CDA! Pat, me, Andrew, and Patti.

In a lot of ways, this race was a convergence of some of the coolest events I’ve had the opportunity to participate in. For example, if you remember the Antarctica trip, you’ll also remember that there were some pretty awesome people there, and some of us ran another race together in SF a few years ago. At this Ironman, Andrew (Antarctica Marathon 2015 winner) was also competing – he was a fantastic listening ear / empathizer during training, as this would be his first Ironman attempt as well. Patti, the infamous Vermont reporter and hands down the best race cheerleader, came with her decked-out motivational megaphone. Pat M, another Vavilovian / Colonia-9er from that trip, was racing this Ironman with her daughter – both of them are experienced Ironpeople.

Car magnet from Mike’s Badwater race – so cool to see this almost ten years later

I would be remiss in not commenting on how insane the amount of prep work in the 48 hours leading up to the race was. A few things that we had to do:

  • Check in before Friday afternoon – pick up swag (including sweet backpacks) and wristbands (which we’d wear for the weekend), as well as drop bags

    A REALLY helpful volunteer at check in (photo credit: Patti)

  • Procure bike – various options here. I shipped mine using TriBikeTransport (thanks guys – super easy) so I wanted to make sure it had arrived in Idaho and wasn’t wrecked.  I laid eyes on it on Friday and then grabbed it on Saturday –
  • On Saturday, you had to put your bike in the transition area. For those counting, this meant you had to be at the Ironman village on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – all three days
  • Also Saturday, you could drop off two of your drop bags (but not all four drop bags)
  • On Sunday before the race, you could drop off the other two drop bags. You also had to get marked up with sharpie – they wrote your race number and age on various appendages.

For comparison – at many trail ultras I’ve run, I’ve just shown up on the morning of the race, picked up my bib, and started running, sometimes having registered the day before. Definitely a different process.

In between these activities, we mostly ate food, explored the town, and watched Arrested Development. I was really doing anything to take my mind off of the race.

So. Much. Gear. (photo credit: Patti)

I tried to be as efficient as possible on race morning, for two reasons. First, more efficiency means more sleep. Second, more efficiency means less time to panic about the race.

I was really very anxious about not finishing this race. I was giving myself a 50/50 likelihood of having trained enough for the bike portion. To finish the bike portion within the cutoff, racers have to move at about 13.5 miles per hour. On flat road, this is not a challenge. However, this course, as mentioned was really hilly, and it would also be really hot. So, even with my weeks of spreadsheet tracking and calculating paces and projected finish times, I just wasn’t sure I’d make the bike cutoff. Of all of the races I’ve participated in, I’ve never DNFd (dropped out). There are a lot of races where, if I had, I’d be disappointed, but not crushed, because the race wasn’t that big of a deal. However, I’d trained for this Ironman for almost a year. I’d spent so much time and mental capacity in getting ready for it – I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite as emotionally invested in the outcome of a race. Even during my first 100-mile run, which featured torrential downpours and blisters the size of silver dollars, I never really doubted I would finish. For this Ironman, I knew that I could do the miles – just not that I could do them within the time limit. So, despite the training, I was pretty anxious.

Leading up to the race, I shared this anxiety with pretty much anybody who would listen. I got some good advice, and some not so good advice (not so good advice: “You should feel anxious. That won’t go away. Good luck.”)

Two pieces of great advice I got:

Andrew eats pizza for his pre-race meal (photo credit: Patti)

From Amy, one of my swimming coaches: “Remember to rely on your training, and when you get anxious just take a deep breath. I have seen you progress so much even in the last month – just relax into it and you’ll be fine.” This was so encouraging to hear from a coach, and it made me really understand why coaches can be such powerful motivators – they’re typically the only ones who have been with you every step of the way in training. Their opinion is better informed than almost anyone else’s.

From another athlete: He reminded me that this anxiety was exactly what I’d been looking for last year, when I was burnt out on running. Which is true – that’s why I signed up. I wanted something different – something that was a challenge, with ambiguity, that pushed me in different ways. In my panic, I had forgotten that was the primary reason I’d taken on this challenge. His reminder made me appreciate the anxiety, and feeling it in the moment, in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

The morning of the race, I kept these things in mind as I went through the check-in steps.

Ironman Village is dark in the morning before the start, but the volunteers make up for it with their enthusiasm and flashlights. When we arrived, Andrew and I first for sharpie’d with our numbers, then went to check on our bikes, and we dropped off two of our drop bags. Then we went over towards the beach area to hang out for a few minutes, eat some breakfast food (which, in Andrew’s case, somehow involved an entire cold pizza), and get into our wetsuits.

At what seemed like an appropriate time, we said goodbye to Patti – the best cheerleader ever – and headed down to the sand.

We were self-seeded by projected swim finish time, so I comfortably positioned myself towards the back third, at the 1:40 mark. After the national anthem, sung in the pre-dawn light, the gun went off, and the race started.

The Swim

Getting ready to swim. Green hat = men, pink hat = women

My wave stood on the sand for another ten or fifteen minutes before we got close to the actual start line. The race sent us off in waves, with lots of space between them, so there was less likelihood of crowding and getting kicked in the race while in the water. That meant that we could see the fastest swimmers taking off down the course, away from the beach, towards the turnaround. The swim course was two loops, each just over a mile, with a little 10-meter run on the sand in between the two loops.

If you’re cool, you look like this guy when you get in the water. He was on the cover of the CDA local newspaper. (Photo credit: that newspaper’s photographer)

As we approached the start line (an inflatable arch), I mentally prepared for the cold water. When it was time to cross, I only started with a few other people – the start wasn’t that wide. I remember feeling excitement, apprehension, and relief that the moment was finally here, and ran into the water, doing the awkward leg-lift thing to get further out before getting down to swim. I did this as fast as possible, to minimize the total time that the body was shocked by the cold (having practiced in San Francisco’s freezer of the Bay).

The water was so warm. I’d spent most of my outdoor training hours in the San Francisco bay, which boasted water temperatures of 54*F in the winter and 62*F in the summer. This may seem like a small range, but on the colder days, spending more than 45 minutes in the water was really difficult; my fingers lost mobility during one swim due to the cold. So, this 70*F water in Idaho seemed luxurious by comparison.

I’d also been warned that the water would be crowded, and getting kicked in the face was going to happen with high frequency. However, due to their phased entry process, it actually seemed fairly civilized. You could pretty much see where people were going, and there was never too big of a wall of people that it was hard to pass if you needed to.

Swimmers getting in the water (Andrew’s the one without a wetsuit) (photo credit: Patti)

The swim passed in a bit of a blur. A few things stood out – snapshots in time.

The first was the color of the water – this gold-green shade, but very very clear – you could see the sand at the bottom. A combination of the sun rising and the sand and the hills nearby combined to make this very fresh color.

The second was rounding the big marks at the end of the first loop. There was a big motorboat and a few kayaks, but because we were swimming, I could only catch glimpses of them during breaths. So it was mostly – water water water – part of a boat – water water water – another part of a boat. But there were people there, and they seemed pretty enthusiastic in their cheering.

Coming out of the water – looking like a happy blubbery seal

The fourth image I had was on the home stretch of the second lap. I felt really good, and very excited about my possible time. I was getting squished between a few folks though, and I didn’t want this to be a dumb reason to lose a few seconds, so I picked up the pace and passed them before they could converge in front of me.

  • I’d worked really hard to learn this new skill, and it turns out I don’t suck at it! In fact, I’m pretty good, and much better than I thought I was.
  • I get an extra half an hour on the bike! At this point, I was pretty sure I could make the cutoff, because I’d finished the swim a full hour earlier than the swim cutoff, which means I could allocate that time to the bike.

The swim was probably my favorite part of the day.

Transition 1 (T1)

Best part of the day. (Photo credit: Patti)

This was easily the most absurd part of the day. Runners tend to be a pretty self-sufficient bunch, and usually at ultra aid stations that take a while, you might get your drop bag, unpack it, sit down for a minute, then get up and get some food, then put your bag away, and keep going. Volunteers at ultras are awesome – they sometimes fill up your water bottle for you! But other than that, it’s pretty self-service.

Going into T1 of the Ironman, I’d sort of anticipated it would be the same. I’d take off my wetsuit, get by drop bag and change, and be on my way.

Boy was I wrong.

I got out of the water and trotted to the transition area. It was loud, and there were easily 30-40 volunteers there. One of them unzipped my wetsuit as I trotted. Two more pulled my arms out, and then sort of gently/urgently made me sit down, so a fourth could pull my wetsuit off from my ankles. Four people helped me take off my wetsuit. And this was just the start.

Next, I picked up my drop bag and headed into the tent, where two women descended on me to help me with this part of the process. One of them took lead, and she hustled me over to a chair and dumped my bag of stuff on the ground (apparently this is best practice to make sure you haven’t missed anything). She brought over a few towels as I changed and as I put my bike shoes on, then I packed everything back in the back (with her help) and she basically pushed me out of the tent.

It wasn’t over yet though – there was an alley of volunteers to walk through, during which you could pick up water or electrolytes on your way to your bike. And at the end of this alley was another spate of volunteers, who directed you to your bike, in case you’d forgotten where it was in the forest of other bikes.

Then you got your bike and walked it out to the street. There was a line on the road (which several other volunteers policed / brought you over to), and at that line you could get on your bike to start the 112 miles that came next.

The Bike

I heard this is a cool thing to do during races because it makes it look like the activity is effortless. It was not. This photo is deceiving.

This was the part of the race I’d been most anxious about, and I wanted to start strong. I knew there was a lot of climbing coming up, so I made the most of the flat that I had at the beginning – a little out and back with some rolling hills along the lake. Of the two laps, I also knew the second would be significantly harder, as it was going to get very hot in the afternoon. So in addition to taking advantage of the flat parts at the beginning, I knew I wanted to use a little more energy on the first lap than I otherwise would have.

I don’t exactly know how many hills there were. It really depends on how you count them. I think there were two each way, for a total of eight – at least, that’s how I remember it. The first big climb on the way out didn’t seem so bad, probably because it was still fairly early and most of it was shaded, and the second wasn’t bad either. There was a flat / uphill-ish stretch towards the turnaround that felt much longer than it actually was, and that was pretty boring and frustrating. I did get to see Andrew after this turnaround – it’s always fun to see people you know!

This part of the day was also going to require some thinking regarding nutrition. I brought my Camelbak and stuffed it with water and PB&J sandwiches. To re-fill water, I assumed I’d have to stop, get off the bike, open my Camelbak, take out the water bladder, open the screw top thing, fill up the water, then reverse the process, which would take several minutes each time – which I wasn’t sure I had, but which needed to happen to prevent dehydration. However, during the first 30 or 40 miles, I’d noticed that nobody was stopping at aid stations. Instead, they’d slow down to 5-10 miles per hour, and a volunteer would be holding out their hand with a bottle of water or Gatorade in it, and they’d do a super quick handoff – the cyclist didn’t even need to stop.

I’d installed two water bottle holders on my bike a while ago, but I’d always been too afraid to use them because I thought I might fall off the bike. To get to them, you have to reach between your knees and down a bit. However, after watching a few aid stations like this, and seeing other cyclists doing it, I decided to give it a try – I slowed down to a crawl, held out my hand in the direction of a volunteer, made eye contact, and they handed off the Gatorade to me! It was magic! More liquid, and I’d probably saved five minutes of time. I nervously maneuvered it into one of the bottle holders – and didn’t fall off my bike! We were in business. I didn’t get off my bike for the entire 112 miles.

And it was lucky I’d committed to doing aid stations the “right” way – it got really hot, really quickly.

Near the beginning of the second lap, I saw Patti cheering on the sidelines – super motivating!

The second lap was much more difficult than the first. The scenery was now not novel, and the big out and back was just a freeway with yellow grass all around. The sun was beating down – no shade from the mountains. I was struggling up the hills. People with fancy-looking bikes kept passing me. That wasn’t super demoralizing – I’m a very slow cyclist and had tons of practice on the road with people passing me – but it wasn’t exactly the most motivating, either.

The other thing about biking is that sweat works differently than running, and that’s something I’d never really gotten used to during training. Because you’ve moving 3x as quickly on a bike as on your feet, water evaporates from your skin much faster, so using sweat to judge how much liquid to drink is not a good way to measure. That said, I knew I had to drink, so I just drank whenever my mouth was dry – which was basically every five minutes. I have no idea how many bottles of liquid I went through, but I will say that I did not have to get off the bike to use the bathroom any time during the 112 miles – so the answer is, probably not enough.

By this point, though, I knew I would make the bike cutoff if I didn’t do anything stupid. So I kept cruising and didn’t worry about the slow climbs.

Check out that sweet bottle of electrolytes in the bike cage! New skill that day.

I will say that it seemed like the bike course was pretty dangerous this year, however. Before the race, I’d looked up deaths during triathlon aces (a pretty dumb thing to look up …). About 87% (if I remember) of deaths are during the swim, and maybe 10% during the bike and 3% during the run. Something like that. However, during the bike event, I saw one guy get mauled by an off-leash dog – the dog literally came out of the bushes and charged the guy, knocking him off of his bike. The dog owner seemed apathetic. I stopped to help the guy out – he was literally right in front of me when it happened – until a volunteer showed up. One guy also got hit by a car between hills 1 and 2, and had to be taken away in an ambulance. I was lucky, given all that.

Overall – the bike was long and arduous. My butt hurt a lot, and my leg muscles were tired of the same motion over and over. My shoulders were cramped. I’d never spent so many miles on a bike before – 112 is my longest bike ride to date. I was so happy coming into the transition.

Transition 2 (T2)

As I got off the bike, the outside edges of both feet immediately started hurting – a lot – almost a bone pain. I’d never felt this before, and didn’t know what to do. I had no idea if I could run a marathon on feet that hurt like this. Worried, I put my bike back on its rack, picked up my bag, and hobbled to the aid station.

The volunteers were super nice, once again – helping me put away my bike gear and getting me ready for the run. But I was exhausted and moving slowly, and my feet felt like they had stress fractures in outside tarsal bones. I asked one of the volunteers if they had any Tylenol or Advil, and they said no, but then she sort of loudly said “I think I saw someone with some …” and another racer happened to have a few tablets. I was so grateful for the help. The volunteer winked and said she knew someone would have them. The other racer even assured me that this sort of racer-to-racer assistance was allowed (there’s a whole list of things that aren’t allowed, such as I think sharing food? Not sure what else).

After 20 minutes of transition time – far more than I’d wanted – and a can of soup, I stood up and hobbles out of the tent. A volunteer slathered some sunscreen on me and I headed towards the exit.

The run

Run run run

The run was three laps of just under 9 miles each. Each lap was an out-and-back, so we really only saw about 4.5 miles of new scenery – however, half of scenery was also included in part of the bike race – so really only about two miles of the course was new.

The first lap felt really good. I surprisingly ran most of it – the pain in my feet went away (however if anyone knows what this is and how to prevent it, please let me know – it’s still a mystery to me). I was initially surprised at how tired my legs were because they hadn’t been running all day, but then also surprised because the feeling felt very familiar. Then I remembered I’d done this kind of thing before – running on tired legs – and this was sort of like being 50 miles into a 75 mile running race.

Still running

Framing it that way – running toward the end of an ultra – made it a much easier proposition. Legs were tired and would remain tired, walking was okay, and any forward motion was good.

Patti and Andrew showed up on the sidelines at some point (Andrew had dropped due to heat exhaustion) and had MacGyver-ed Patti’s cheerleading bullhorn into a boombox by putting an iPhone playing music against the back of it. They drove around blasting music and cheering people on with an energy that was nothing short of incredible.

During the last lap, I was getting a little grumpy at the repetition of the scenery, and I really just wanted to be done. It was also getting dark, so I’d had to break out the headlamp. People were handing out glowsticks too, which was fun. One runner and I had been playing leapfrog for a while, so we dropped into step with each other and ran/walked most of the last lap together. I saw Pat M a few times on the course – she powered right past me during the third loop.

As I came out of the last loop towards the finish line, with about a mile to go, I knew I could run the rest, so I parted ways with my running buddy and picked my pace up to a pained trot. Every step towards the finish line felt like a victory. I clearly remember the turnoff – where sidewalk chalk had indicated “turn left if you’re on your first or second lap, but turn right to finish” – and I was heading to the finish!

A local cheerleading squad was on the course at the finish line, and they’d divided themselves into pairs and trios to cheer the runners in. That’s when I knew I was really close.

I turned left and saw the arch at the finish. It was incredible – bright lights everywhere, and random spectators – a LOT of them – lining the finish chute. Who were these people who stayed out so late to cheer on strangers?

The sweetest part of running through the finish line was knowing I had done this myself – every step, every rotation of the pedal, and every stroke had been mine. I’d learned new skills and fought every step of the way to own them. But I also knew I’d had so much support from my friends and family – there’s no way I could have gotten to the finish without them.

Finish line!

After the race

Immediately after the race there were some pictures and celebrations, and then we went home and I went to sleep. I remember, before going to bed, putting my wetsuit out on the railing to dry, and wondering when the next time I’d use it would be. It’s been two months, and it’s still dry.

The next morning was relaxing. Pat W and his wife came home, and it was great to catch up with them for a bit. Patti, Andrew, and I went down to the athlete village to see if I could reclaim a lost swimsuit, and after talking to six or seven people, I was able to find it. Andrew took off for a work thing, and Patti and I got brunch before she dropped me at the airport.

I’ve had lots of time to reflect on the race in the last few weeks. A few things really stand out:

I’m still young, but not as young as I was when I started running (more than ten years ago). Learning new things doesn’t happen every day when you’re an adult, and picking up a new skill from scratch is an insanely empowering experience. I am so proud of my swimming capabilities now – capabilities I didn’t have a year ago.

I understand why Ironman athletes are so grateful for the support of their friends and family. Three things about this come to mind.

  • The training is really demanding – more so than I’d ever thought. I’ve never trained so much for any race, even races that were almost twice as long in terms of hours spent on the course. I was sometimes spending 20 hours a week training. 4:30 wakeups are fun for nobody, and you have to have buy-in from the people you’re living with that it’s okay to spend time this way.
  • I was new to this sport, and a lot of people gave me guidance and suggestions during training. I asked a LOT of questions about how to do this the right way, and a lot of people patiently entertained my ignorance. Thanks especially to Mike W and Christina for tolerating my really amateur questions.
  • It really does take a whole weekend – really more than a weekend – to do this thing. It shouldn’t, but the way they construct the checkins and surrounding stuff means that it does.
  • No pacing is allowed on the course. I’ve never done something this long without a pacer, and it’s really empowering. But the support crew is still there – just in a different capacity. Patti and Andrew, you guys are rock stars.

I understand what it means to take a break after a race now. The training for this was just so physically and emotionally draining. I’m working out now, but probably about half as much as I was before the race. I don’t have any immediate plans to sign up for anything (although I do have a different sport in mind for another race …) and I’m just enjoying the unstructured time. While I used to want to rush to the next thing, I’ve learned it’s okay to relax sometimes, and just appreciate and reflect the work you’ve done.

Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: 46 miles in the Grand Canyon

(Originally posted August 21 – This is coming a little late, but I wanted to post it before this weekend comes up – another big race on the horizon!)

In May, I ran across the Grand Canyon and back, a feat known as rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r). In this activity, you start at one side of the canyon, then run down to the bottom of it and up the other side, then back down to the bottom and up the original side, to end where you started, all in one day. It includes about 11,000-12,000 feet of climbing, and the climbing and descending comes all at one time. The overall profile looks a little like this:

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This is a lot of climbing (image source). I actually started at the North Rim, so just pretend the first half comes after the second half in this profile.

Will was running a 50-miler near(ish) the North Rim, so my plan was to start from there. My plan also included these elements:

  • Start very early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. It can get up to 100 degrees at the bottom of the canyon, even in May
  • Carry all the water and liquid I would need. I’d heard there were a few water lines that were broken towards the bottom, so I wanted to be prepared to not rely on them
  • Pick up some food at the North Rim, since they have a bunch of little shops and convenience stores and things. I’d be able to get something meaningful, like a burger, to help with the caloric intake

The beginning

I started around 2:30 in the morning. I was feeling pretty good about my early start – I would have several hours to cruise downhill before the sun came up and it started getting hot. I took my time going down – no reason to rush.

After about ten minutes on the trail, I took off long sleeve shirt. It was already really warm, even in the middle of the night. Possibly the first sign that I hadn’t fully thought this activity through. I didn’t use the long sleeve shirt again this day.

I also turned off my GPS at this point, because it wasn’t doing so well in the canyon. It said I was going pretty slow (like a mile an hour), and that was just depressing. I ran the rest of the trail by time and feel rather than distance.

At this time of night, the canyon feels very big. You know there’s a huge empty space in front of you, but you can’t see it because its dark. It’s just a big, gaping, hole. I was very alone – just me, the trail, and the stars.

It was also possible to see the lights from buildings at the South Rim – all the way across the canyon – really ethereal. The distance between the rims is only about 12 miles as the crow flies, so it was easy to see them, especially as nothing was obstructing the view. It made me think a lot about what capabilities we have as humans – there’s really no fast way to get to the other side of the canyon unless you fly. Even though it’s only 12 miles away, it still takes four hours to drive around, and 6-8 hours to walk/run it. (Nighttime running is great for philosophical thoughts).

About two hours in, I saw another headlamp coming up towards me. The first sign of life! Maybe it was a hiker who was getting started early. After a few minutes, he came around the corner – a runner! He had no time to stop and chat, but what I did catch from him was that he was also running rim-to-rim-to-rim … and had started before midnight in order to escape the heat. This was maybe my second hint that I’d not planned as well as I’d thought. He was coming up the canyon as I was descending – my first descent. He was almost halfway done with his attempt, and I was just getting started.

A little later I ran past Cottonwood Camp, where some folks were just waking up. I didn’t know that there was a campsite there, so I was really confused as to why I was hearing voices just off the trail. Too early for hallucinations.

The next stretch, between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch, was some of the most beautiful miles of the whole trail. The sun was just starting to come up, and the light was reflecting off the water in a really beautiful way. The trail was man-made, and put right between the steep canyon wall and the water. A very cool trail – I hadn’t been on one like that before.

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Sunrise in the Grand Canyon – look at that reflection on the water

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Trail on the right, water on the left (of the picture)

At Phantom Ranch, I crossed over to the south side of the canyon and began the climb up. It wasn’t too slow, and I felt fairly good at the time. 95% of tourists to the canyon go to the south rim, so it got a little crowded as I made my way to the top, but people were generally really nice and gave me space (not that I was going much faster). I got to the top of the South Rim around 9am or or so – I’d made really good time going across. I was feeling good and went to find some food for my halfway snack.

The middle

The problem was … nothing is open for real food at 9am. There were a few places I saw to get a burger, but they didn’t open until around 11am – too late. I tried to find a gift shop, but most of them were fancy places that sold things like hand-painted bowls, or chocolate that looked like colorful rocks. Nothing substantial. I finally gave up and bought a huge bag of gummy bears, mainly because I didn’t want to waste any more time. I also tried to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine, but this also did not work as the vending machine was broken. I just refilled my Camelbak and got going.

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Feeling pretty good at the South Rim. Check out that sweet green shirt that got a whole ten minutes of use before turning into a butt cape.

The way back down wasn’t so bad. There were a few people who I saw on the way up who recognized me coming back down and gave me a thumbs-up – that was pretty fun. It was starting to get warm, so at Indian Garden I stopped and got some water (the spigots were working after all). I then got stuck for 20 minutes behind a mule caravan, which was a little frustrating because I was moving pretty quick at the time (e.g. and importantly, faster than the mules). I was pretty patient, but finally made some noise about this being a multi-use trail on public lands, so they finally let me pass (but not before adding another thin film of dust to the collection already on my skin and clothes). I think this is where the toenail on the big toe on my right foot got messed up from slamming the front of my shoe (it still looks gross, five months later).

Phantom Ranch was a bit of a turning point, and not in a good way. It was getting really hot. I knew I had really under-estimated water, and I was getting worried about food too – e.g., that I didn’t have enough of it. Fortunately, the water situation in the canyon was not desperate, so I guzzled from a spigot, doused my shoes, and kept moving.

Remember that beautiful trail I loved so much on the way in? It turned into a hellish oven in the afternoon – no shade, no trees, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to sit. This six mile stretch was just awful. I was dizzy, worried about food, drinking too fast through all of my water, and I couldn’t go for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time without stopping. I’d sit in whatever sliver of shade I could find right up against the canyon wall, stretch my feet out in front of me, and pray nobody would come by and ask what I was doing. (One group did, but they were pretty nice and didn’t judge too much). It was a pretty dangerous situation, and I was embarrassed at my bad planning.

To take my mind off of the struggle, I dipped into my podcast queue. TED Radio Hour is fantastic for these sorts of activities – just thought-provoking enough to take your mind off of the painful reality of the situation, but not complex enough that it’s confusing or frustrating or hard to follow with the limited mental capacity that often comes with these sorts of activities. I made a rule that I could only stop at the end of an episode (about 40-45 minutes) and kept moving.

(I found out later that it was in the high 90s around this time.)

The food situation was becoming desperate. I’d only packed a few Clif bars, maybe a PB&J sandwich, some Gu, and that gross mess of gummy bears from the South Rim (which were mostly gone by this point). I knew I could make it back to the top with what I had, but it was going to be really tough.

When I got back to Cottonwood, I decided to see if I could call upon my fellow trail adventurers for help. After a bit of chit chat with a couple at the water spigot, they asked how I had packed my food, and I said I had done it quite poorly. Then – to my eternal gratitude – they eagerly offered to offload some of their food to me. They were doing rim-to-rim and had way overpacked, they said, and definitely wouldn’t need a ton of what they brought. I’d be doing them a favor by taking it! This seemed too good to be true, or they were being far too polite. Either way, I didn’t have to think twice to take them up on their offer. And honestly, I’ve never tasted a better tangerine. Thank you forever, nice Grand Canyon hikers. You made my next few hours so much more bearable.

The worst was over.

The end

The last bit of the run was mostly a climb. Specifically, a 4,000-foot climb back to the top. It was a slog, but it was mostly walking/hiking, and it had started cooling down – the heat was behind me. I knew I would make it at this point – just cruising to the finish.

Lots of other people were finishing up their hikes too – it was fun to meet them and play a little leapfrog as we passed each other back and forth. I met a couple of teenage girls who were doing rim-to-rim by themselves – SO COOL! We hiked together for a little bit.

 

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Taking a break on the climb back up

The Grand Canyon is made of layers of rock deposited over several millennia. One of the cool parts about climbing back up the other side was being able to see the sediment color change with each layer. At first the trail was orange dust (to match the orange walls of the canyon at that elevation), then white, then red, then yellow, then green … it was a very unconventional way to mark progress, but at this point, the vertical elevation was a more helpful progress marker than mileage. It felt a little bit like walking through time.

Getting to the end was very uneventful. There was no finish line, and nobody was waiting there [Will said he’d be back at the hotel]. I bummed a ride off of someone to get the final two miles back to the hotel (thanks, Canyon friends)! and tried not to get their car too dirty. They said they were actually shuttling a lot of their hiking buddies back and forth just then anyway, so a little dust didn’t hurt.

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The “finish line”

 

The aftermath

This was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I think it’s the longest “unsupported” run I’ve done. This was one of about three runs I’ve ever completed where, at the end, I felt nauseous, had some trouble breathing consistently, and didn’t have any desire to eat food (unreal).

A few things stuck out about the next 12 hours, and I took pictures of them

  1. This cross-section of the canyon layers in the hotel lobby. The layers take on a whole new meaning when you’ve been through literally every single one of them.

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    It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ocher and peach …

  2. This cat painted on a white rock. All of the rocks at the hotel had little animals painted on them, and I thought that was a pretty cool detail for a park to add. (Spoiler alert – it wasn’t a cat. I was just getting very close to hallucination state. It was water / dust damage).

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    But it does look like a cat right?

  3. This book in the gift shop. The canyon is no joke. I wasn’t in any danger of dying, but we runners like to kid that the vultures are always circling. 

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    That skeleton was me

Advice for people thinking about doing this

  • Leave earlier in the morning. Apparently 2:30 wasn’t early enough to avoid the heat
  • Pack more food. Carry it in your hands if you have to. Protein!
  • Bring and drink lots and lots of water! (Also salt – I forgot salt)
  • Late May is probably too late, because it really does get hot

Overall

This was a really fun run. It’s one I’d had on my mind for a few years (one of the main reasons I wanted to do the NPS internship was to possibly have the opportunity to take on this run). It really is an epic adventure in one of the coolest and most iconic parts of the world. The Canyon forces you to reflect on our place in the world, as cliche as that sounds – this is a huge geological formation that no human effort could possibly recreate, and that no human effort could tame.  We keep coming back because of how awe-inspiring places like this are. These places force us to respect them and to contemplate them. They will be here long after we are gone.

For me, running is a way of honoring the space and getting to know it. This run is one I will never forget.

Stagecoach 100: Flagstaff to Grand Canyon

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Running through the Aspens around mile 15

It’s been two weeks since I finished the Stagecoach 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon in Arizona that starts in Flagstaff and ends at the Grand Canyon. There are a couple of reasons for this delay.

  • It was a pretty drama-free race. It was difficult, but not impossible, and I made smart decisions the whole way.
  • It was a hard race, but three was nothing particularly insane about it [e.g. awful weather, impossible terrain, etc]. The elevation was a challenge – averaged 7,500 ft of altitude the whole time – but that wasn’t a huge barrier.
  • For the first time since I started racing, I’m very ready to take a break from racing for a while. There’s nothing coming up on my calendar [can’t remember the last time that happened] and I don’t have any immediate plans to sign up for anything. Feels good.

Pre-race

I signed up for Stagecoach race after running Zion in April. Zion was a very hard race, and, if you remember, they shortened the course to 90 miles due to weather. While I made up 10 miles on my own later, I was deeply dissatisfied with not officially running 100 miles on the course, especially after how awful the training for that had been.  I wanted to find another race that I could run to take advantage of the training I had done and the 100-mile shape I was in.

To train for Stagecoach, I did pretty much nothing in comparison to what I had done for Zion. Zion training involved 30 mile training runs almost every weekend. For Stagecoach, these this is the complete list of long training runs I ran that were greater than 15 miles:

  • A failed 50k in the Marin Headlands, where I only ended up running 18 miles.
  • Canyon Meadow 50k. Somewhat fast race but not eventful.
  • San Francisco Ultramarathon, which is the marathon course twice. I was exceedingly slow on the second loop because I wanted to run with friends. This was a pretty lazy (but fun) race.
  • Mount Diablo 50k, which was brutal and hilly.

And that’s it. Four long runs, one of which barely counts, over the course of six months.

Psychologically, I wasn’t concerned about finishing. It may be cocky, but I didn’t think the training was going to hold me back from completing the race. I felt like I had maintained my training decently. Also, I knew my dad was going to come up to crew me, and Will was going to pace me for a bunch of miles, and those psychological boosts are really helpful.

The race itself

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With Dad at the start. It was cold.

I’ve summarized the race this way: It sucked, then it didn’t suck so much, then it sucked again, then it sucked more, then I finished.

1. First, it sucked. (miles 0-20)

The start line was cold. Runners could start at 7am [early start] or 8am [official start]. I started at 8am because that’s what I’d been planning to do – the 7am option was a late add.

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Runners start running

 

 

Honestly, the first twenty miles were mediocrely fun from a mental standpoint. We started at 7,500 feet of elevation, and spent the first several hours climbing to almost 9,000 feet of elevation. On the plus side, this was the highest part of the course, so it was nice that it was early. On the minus side, it isn’t fun to start a race walking uphill with limited oxygen.

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It really was pretty

I spent the entire section of this race trying to appreciate the scenery [which was gorgeous] and not looking forward to 90 more miles of running. I idly wondered if I should drop out, because I was bored and slow and 100 miles is a long way.

2. Then it didn’t suck so much. (miles 20-65)

At mile 20, I saw my support crew for the first time, and it was a great energy boost. Dad was there, and he brought along a sailing buddy who we’d both raced with, Rollin. Rollin had never been to an event like this, and he was definitely more excited than I was to be there at this point, which was really cool.

This was also the first time I saw Will during the race – he’d flown in late the night before, so I didn’t see him at the start. It was great to see him, and he walked for a few minutes with me out of the aid station.

To get to the next aid station, I listened to a few podcasts. I also met a guy from North Andover who was running his first 100. He was pulling like 8-minute miles, so he quickly left me in the dust – I’d see him later.

I also met an absurdly inspirational guy named Larry, who had just turned 70. This race was his 21st 100-miler (!). Also, he’d run all 21 in just 7 years. The dude has been running 100-milers every four months. I spent a good chunk of time walk/running with him, and we spent most of the next forty miles leapfrogging each other.

I saw Will and Dad again at mile 34[ish? hard to remember]. Originally, I’d planned to pick up Will at aid station 68, but it was becoming apparent that I might not get there until midnight or 2am, which would be really late. I like to leverage my pacers in the early hours of the morning to prevent me from falling asleep, and I worried that I’d be hitting the sleepy phase long before mile 68. So we re-worked the plan to have him join me at mile 54 instead. This required some herculean logistical creativity on Dad’s, Rollin’s, and Will’s side, which I really appreciated. I left them at 34, looking forward to seeing Dad and Will in a few more hours [Rollin, intelligently, went home and to bed].

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Someone was taking pictures so I had to run into the aid station

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With Will at mile 34

Around mile 45, it started getting dark. We were running through open fields at this point, and there were tons of cows – very southwest vibe. The cows were mooing. By this time, I was pretty much alone – Larry was far enough either ahead or behind that he wasn’t within shouting distance – so I moo-d back at the cows.

Around mile 48, there was a cool aid station with a drone taking video of the race.

Around mile 50, I saw an AWESOME meteor. It was red and firey and shot right across the sky.

Around mile 51, I was getting a little tired, and it was fully dark. Milky Way all the way across the sky was visible to the naked eye. I slowed down a little bit, looking for camaraderie to get me to the next aid station. I found two guys running together, blasting some pretty sweet jams from their backpack, so I ran the last few miles into the 54-mile aid station with them.

At mile 54, I had some soup that Dad prepared and picked up Will. It was a good plan to grab him here instead of much later, and I was very happy to have him this early in the race.

Just after this aid station, we heard some elk in heat. Guys, this is a crazy sound. I thought it was emergency vehicles. Listen to this if you don’t believe me. All that whiny metallic-sounding stuff is the animal sound.

The next several miles were pretty fun. We went to an aid station that had candles leading the way to it, and it was a pretty easy trot to get to mile 68 [at least, I remember it that way].

At the mile 68 aid station, I was getting tired. I took my shoes off and switched socks. It was about 2am at this point, and a little sliver of orange moon started to rise.

3. Then it sucked again (miles 68-?)

Miles 68 through 80 were pretty tough. This was a very very long slog, made slower by the fact that it was dark and the trail was tricky.

I was also getting tired, so asked Will to keep the conversation going through asking me questions. His favorite questions to ask were “What’s your favorite [thing]?”, ranging from ‘What’s your favorite Disney character?’ [Ariel] to ‘marine animal?’ [Leafy Sea Dragon] to ‘tree?’ [Eucalyptus]. We had a lot of miles, so the questions got more granular: favorite book ‘from before middle school’ [I think I said Narnia] and ‘from after middle school’ [No idea what I said here]. He got very creative in finding categories of things to ask about that might include a favorite. When he ran out of ‘favorite’ questions and I got more tired, he started on hot-button political issues, which *really* stoked the fire, as his and my opinions differ materially on many political issues. I definitely was not falling asleep on my feet anymore, so this worked really well.

4. Then it sucked more (miles ?-88)

At one point, it got pretty tough. I’d thought we’d gone about six miles since the last aid station, but then a runner behind us said we’d only gone three. That realization was one of the most depressing moments of the race. Everything seemed pretty hopeless. I really, really didn’t want to keep moving forward. That, coupled with knowing the only way to get out of this misery is to keep moving in some direction, is a really hard thing to balance. Want to stop moving + have to keep moving [even if you want to quit the race] = extremely demotivating.

The only thing to do was truck along. I plugged into some podcasts and kept marching.

At some point the sun came up. This was also depressing, because I still had a lot of miles to move, and usually the sun coming up is the sign of the end of the race. Not this time. Lots of miles to go.

The mile 80 aid station was literally the worst aid station ever [at least, it seemed that way at the time]. Around mile 79, we reached an asphalt road with a sign pointing right. To get to the mile 80 aid station, it was a fairly steep downhill for a mile to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Going down the hill was brutal, because you knew you’d have to turn around and come right back up as soon as you got to the bottom. It seemed like an unnecessary detour.

I also found out later that the cabin was a mile from a great view of the Grand Canyon, which raises the question as to why they didn’t run the course down there and back, and take out two miles somewhere else. Would have been an awesome view.

The next few miles were tricky because I kept thinking I saw the mile 88 aid station. I was minorly hallucinating [nothing compared to Pine Creek]. This time, literally everything looked like a man-made structure. I saw huts, hobbit holes, ski lodges, tents, cabins. Basically, I was wishfully hallucinating the next aid station. Talk about a roller-coaster of emotions – thinking you see an aid station, then realizing it’s a mirage.

5. Then I finished (miles  88-100)

Finally, we got to the mile 88 aid station [it did not look like any of the mirages I’d visualized. Dad was there. I think we got in at 8am, and we’d been planning to get there at 6am, so he was pretty anxious. It was really great to see him there. He’d had a couple of hours of sleep, but not many. After we’d last seen him, dropping Will off at mile 54, Dad ran around for a few hours in the dark helping rangers safely deliver runners who had dropped out to their cars or crew. It’s really neat how much Dad likes to help out random runners at my races – he does this sort of thing pretty much whenever he comes along.

Originally, Will was going to stop running with me at mile 88, but he heroically agreed to continue plodding with me. Ultimately, he ended up doing 46 miles of the race with me, which is insane and awesome in its own right.

The final miles were pretty tough. I was moving pretty slow – mostly walking, but ran as much as I could. Will set his phone alarm to go off every 17 minutes, which was a good goal, because it motivated me to chunk the task into one-mile increments to beat the clock.

The finish line

Was extremely uneventful. We ran under a freeway, then ran down a path, and finished in the IMAX movie theater parking lot. The finish line was literally one orange cone. There were maybe 20 people there. Dad ran across the finish line with me and Will [I wish someone had a picture of this – it was really cool]. The belt buckle is neat. Also, the race director seemed very earnest when he thanked me for coming, which was awesome. He seemed to really care about each individual runner.

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Finisher buckle

When we drove by the parking lot two hours later, everyone was gone and the cone was removed. The race was over.

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Running with Will to the finish line

Reflections

  • Support. One of the best parts of this race was having the support of Dad and Will. Seeing them at mile 20 was a literal game changer. I had been grumpy and not excited for the first few hours of the race, but seeing them come out to support me was really inspiring and motivating.  I’m someone who is motivated by defusing the worst-case-scenario, e.g. I think of the worst-case-scenario and then say “well that’s not so bad.”  In those early miles, I thought about what it would feel like to drop out. Fear of other people judging me for failure is a pretty big deterrent from dropping out, but realizing that Dad and Will would still love and respect me even if I dropped out was really cool. I could fail and they’d wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
  • Data. 45 people started, 28 finished. I’m proud of crossing the finish line. Timing-wise, I finished in 28 hours, which is fine. Slowest 100-miler, but also most difficult. Not sure if I could have gone faster, but it doesn’t really matter to me. Only woman under 35 to finish. 4th 100-miler I’ve run.
  • Decision-making. I made great decisions throughout the race in terms of pacing [go slow and walk a lot], fueling, gear, and asking for support [e.g. having Will come early] . Wouldn’t have changed anything. Very proud of the process.

Overall, I’m proud of what I accomplished on this race. That said, I’m very ready for a break. Running is fantastic, but there’s also an opportunity cost to doing so much of it. Other sports are probably cool, and hanging out with friends is cool. Also, doing more 100-milers, or taking on a longer race, isn’t that inspiring of an idea to me right now. Maybe something will change, but for now I’m pretty comfortable with my empty race calendar.

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Running through the Aspens

Some additional details that may be interesting for runners:

  • Trail was overall pretty runnable. There was a lot of double-track dirt road, and the tire-tread areas weren’t super easy to run on. There were also a lot of pretty rocky sections that were difficult to run on when tired. The hardest single-track was at night around mile 70. Markings could have been closer together to help decrease late-night paranoia. There were no insane stretches of climbing/descending that were unmanageabley[sp?] steep.
  • Aid stations were great. Everyone was friendly. The stretches of 10+ miles were hard, but that would be true anywhere. Carry your own food/gu even if you think you don’t need it.
  • Gear – it was cold at night, but not unbearable as long as you were moving. I brought a running jacket and the inside puffy part of a snow jacket [not worn at the same time] and some light gloves and was fine. Wore shorts the whole time. I like to use handwarmers, but they weren’t totally necessary. Used a handheld 20-oz bottle for water and nothing else. I brought extra batteries because that is smart.
  • Cell phones do *not* work on “most of the course,” which is what the race packet said.